I’ve been putting off reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I don’t know why exactly; something to do with a sneaking conceit that literary criticism can be lofty, dusty and display too much academic preening. And little of it ever led me eagerly to read the authors being appraised.
So, do I need to know how fiction works? Truth is that my reading demands have rarely risen above asking if the fiction works for me.
My reading choices weren’t steered by literary criticism but mostly by an erratic ‘banging around’ like a pinball between different pingers (what is the word for those things that thump the silver ball about?):
• personal preferences, involving too much clinging to favourite authors, and to their favourites
• wider, braver choices suggested by trusted reading friends
• a need to read the ‘surely you must have read’ ‘classics’ and ‘leading’ authors (pretension is a fair old reading stimulus)
• good author interviews (reviews of Anita Brookner’s new novel didn’t lead me back to her, but Mick Brown's recent Telegraph interview did)
• compelling reviews
• good book covers
Lifetime reading hours have been infinitely greater than those spent writing. So, I'm a far better, more experienced reader than I am a writer; something that obtains for all writers, albeit in differing proportions. But it’s only the writing we get to see, even though we can hear whispers and occasional shouts of other authors rising from the page.
Friends suggested that How Fiction Works would make me a better reader – a bit worrying when they know it’s the writing I’m struggling with. They were right. And blessings on Mr Woods, if only for making ‘free indirect style’ something I now completely understand.
I’ve little to add to the blurb on the book’s cover, save that I do feel a better reader. And writer? Yes. The endless but essential reading and re-reading of my own drafts may have got more demanding but it has also become more productive.